In this Sept. 26, 2019, file photo, Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, sits in his seat in the Senate chamber at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal that would ask Maine voters to create a consumer-owned utility that would replace the state’s two major power companies advanced easily in the Legislature’s energy committee on Tuesday, setting up what is likely to be a heavily lobbied floor fight.

Lawmakers on the panel voted 9-2 in favor of an amended version of a bill that would create the nonprofit Pine Tree Power Co. through the referendum process. It would be governed by a board of directors voted on by Mainers and would require the company to buy out Central Maine Power and Versant Power, the state’s two largest electricity providers, through a bond. 

The development advances the concept of a consumer-owned utility, a measure that has been years in the making. A previous attempt was negotiated into a study bill last year. It has bipartisan support in the Legislature, with Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, being the main cosponsors.

Supporters have said the proposal would give Mainers the ability to decide their energy fate, although some noted risks involved. Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, a committee co-chair, said he would have preferred the process play out over years and was concerned about how the proposal would affect climate change. But he voted for the bill, calling it well-crafted.

“And in the end, I can’t come up with an argument of why we should not let the voters decide this issue, if that is what they want to do,” he said.

Those views stand in stark contrast to opponents, who view the proposal as a “government takeover” fueled by opposition to the power companies. In addition to the power companies, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying heavily against the proposal, releasing a petition Monday morning signed by more than 1,000 Mainers through an affiliated group.

Those concerns were voiced by Reps. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, and Steve Foster, R-Dexter.

“These companies are privately owned, they’re not up for sale, and we are forcing them to sell,” Wadsworth said, “and to me, that’s a government takeover of power, and I’m just not there yet — probably ever.”

Supporters could find themselves up against Gov. Janet Mills, who herself has been quiet on the proposal but authorized a measure to study it last year. The director of her energy office, Dan Burgess, testified neutrally on the bill, but said it raises “substantial and serious” questions about the cost and timelines that he believed needed more scrutiny.

“With the potential effects on Maine’s climate, energy market and economy, it is critical that Maine’s residents and businesses have the fullest understanding possible of the potential risks, costs, and opportunities that would come from this proposal,” he wrote.

The bill will be subject to a fiscal estimate before it moves to a floor vote. If it is approved, voters will have their say on the concept in November. A Mills veto would force two-thirds votes in either chamber for the proposal to move forward, a difficult bar to clear for consumer-owned utility supporters who have teased a referendum bid if this bill does not pass.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how the bill would require the Pine Tree Power Co. to purchase the state’s other utilities.